Erik Wemple is the editor of Washington City Paper, as well as the paper’s media critic. Previously, he was the Washington correspondent for Inside.com and CableWorld magazine, as well as City Paper’s political columnist. He has contributed to the Washington Post, New York Times, New Republic, and InTowner.
Brian Montopoli: Bill Moyers [this week] told the Associated Press that the right wing media is a propaganda arm of Republican National Committee, and that the mainstream press is bottom line oriented. As a result, he said, there’s no one looking out for the public interest. Would you agree?
Erik Wemple: I think Moyers is full of shit, and I’m tired of all these grand, sweeping, apocalyptic indictments of journalism. It’s too f—king easy to just say the whole thing is bad. … Len Downie and Bob Kaiser [of the Washington Post] said the news about the news is that it’s too corporate and that there’s too much bottom line and no investigative, and so forth. It’s a decent point, but in my daily meanderings, I encounter too many places where serious, informative journalism is going on. Yes, one of them is the Washington Post. Another is the New York Times. As long as papers like them are setting the standard, I just am not buying into this journalistic apocalypse.
We, for example — Washington City Paper — are an independent, not-huge-corporate-owned paper, and we fund our editorial well, and we serve our community very well. And I think there are a lot of papers like that. I mean, has Bill Moyers run out of things to read? Has he run out of good journalism? There’s no more decent journalism for him to read? His nightstand, his coffee table — there’s just no deep, probing journalism? It’s just all gone? I just don’t believe that. I don’t believe he’s run out of things to read. I certainly haven’t. There’s an awful lot of good journalism that I have no time to read.
BM: You did a very funny takedown of an oh-my-god-your-kids-are-doing-drugs story in Washingtonian magazine recently. New York magazine had a similar piece a few months ago. Do you think the writers and editors, when they assign these stories, know that they’re bullshit, but write them anyway because they sell magazines? Or do people really believe these stories when they write them?
EW: I think there is such a great tradition of alarmism in drug coverage. Every time you turn around, it’s this apocalypse — after reading these stories, it’s a wonder that the world you step into isn’t a bunch of people just lying on couches, stoned and laughing and giggling. I really think they’re always assigned and propagated by people who are out of touch or are interested in a huge reaction to the story. Like in the case of Washingtonian’s story, it was just a bunch of scenes of people smoking pot. I could have given you those same scenes from memory from my high school. And I was on the sports teams, and all these kids were smoking. The way a victory on the football team was celebrated was often with pot, and a loss was commiserated the same way.
BM: But didn’t the editors of Washingtonian magazine go through this as well? That’s what I don’t get. They must have these same memories you do.
EW: I think they probably had their eyes open. They’re very smart people. But they desperately want to reach suburban parents. That’s what Washingtonian is all about. If you want to reach suburban parents, why not say the drug is migrating from peer group to peer group, and your kid’s peer group is now under siege? The really interesting thing about it is, I think the parents would be at least as interested in the real news, which happens to be good news, which is that it’s leveled off or is even declining a little bit. If you’re a parent, why wouldn’t you want to read that? I guess then you can’t do all the scenes of “Keith” getting high and smoking that apple pipe, or whatever it was.